While growing up in South Africa, where baseball is pretty far down in the hierarchy of sports, Dylan Unsworth often played catch with his father, just as so many kids do in the Americas. The Unsworths used a little different style though.
"He would throw underhand to me, and I would throw overhand to him, so it was a little weird," said Unsworth, pointing out that his father did so because he was a good softball pitcher. "He wasn't really the fastest pitcher, but his control and command were outstanding. And that's definitely my strength, so I'm taking after him a little bit."
A prospect in the Seattle Mariners' system, Unsworth is hoping to become the second player -- and first pitcher -- from South Africa to reach the major leagues. On Tuesday, the Pittsburgh Pirates called up shortstop Gift Ngoepe, who grew up in the Johannesburg area, making him the country's (and continent's) first player to reach the highest level of professional baseball.
Unsworth started this season with Triple-A Tacoma, one step below the majors, but was sent back to Double-A Arkansas after two starts. Still, the right-hander has come a long way.
When Unsworth originally signed his contract with the Mariners, he insisted the team would agree to fly his parents from Cape Town to Seattle if he makes the majors. That trip is approximately halfway around the world and takes more than 24 hours, and Unsworth knows the challenging distance well. He has been going back and forth across the globe since he was a teenager.
"People only see the highlights and the good stuff," older brother Donovan Unsworth said. "They don't see the journey my brother has taken the last seven years. The injuries and coming to America at 16 by himself -- people don't see all of that. They just see the baseball player, and that it's all great, but it didn't happen overnight for my brother, that's for sure."
Donovan said that while most young baseball players in South Africa eventually switch to rugby, cricket or soccer for a better chance at an athletic career, Dylan opted to focus on baseball after playing a variety of sports. At 16, he was selected to attend an MLB elite camp in Italy in 2009 (two years before the league started holding similar camps in Africa). The Mariners took notice and signed the young prospect, who made his rookie league debut in 2010.
Now 24, Unsworth is entering his eighth season in the Mariners' system. That's a long stretch without reaching the majors, but he has needed the time to make up for an experience gap in relation to players who grew up in the Americas or Japan.
"You get better in baseball by playing it daily," said Unsworth, who was born in Durban and later moved to Cape Town. "Baseball is a game you play every single day [in America]. In South Africa, you're only playing on Saturday, and that's it. You train Tuesday and train Thursday and then you play Saturday, and that's the only baseball you have."
Unsworth does not throw especially hard -- his fastball usually is around 87 to 89 mph -- but his control is exceptional. In his first pro season at age 17, he appeared in 11 games, 10 as a starter, and walked only one batter in 50⅓ innings.
In 2013, he made 14 starts and issued only two walks in 72 innings. Andrew Lorraine, his minor league pitching coach the past few years, says there were entire games that season in which Unsworth didn't even reach a three-ball count.
Following Lorraine's instruction, Unsworth now keeps his pitches out of the strike zone more often to keep batters guessing about the location.
"He doesn't really wow you with his stuff as far as velocity and his breaking ball, but he definitely makes a lot of pitches and has a plus-plus changeup and great command," Lorraine said. "He doesn't have a lot of margin for error, but he doesn't make a lot of mistakes, either."
Unsworth pitched very well for Double-A Jackson (Tennessee) last summer, going 3-1 with a 1.16 ERA to earn a spot on the All-Star Futures team, but a hamstring injury cut his season short after nine starts. He returned to action for the Arizona Fall League, where he went 4-1 with a 3.00 ERA.
His strong performance carried over into training camp this year.
"He's had a great spring," Mariners manager Scott Servais told reporters after Unsworth threw five scoreless innings during a spring training game in March. "He really has no fear and believes in his stuff. It's not overpowering, but he knows how to pitch. He's got a really good changeup."
Mariners director of player development Andy McKay has called Unsworth one of the best pitchers in the organization.
"When I look at Dylan," McKay said in an ESPN radio broadcast, "I look at everything we want a Mariner to be in terms of how he competes, how he dedicates himself to this game and really how he performs on the field. ... He's a big part of our plans."